For a man whose name is synonymous with genius, it should be hard trying to imagine Albert Einstein as a prodigal son whose father died believing he was a complete failure. Yet, at school early in his life, he skipped classes and made close to failing grades. Legend has it that he was so uninspired by his own performance to the extent that at some point, he considered dropping out and pursuing a career as a life insurance salesman instead. When he finally graduated from the Swiss Polytechnic Institute with a degree in mathematics and natural sciences in 1900, the 21-year old struggled to find a job and had to settle for a few odd offers. But that would all change when the young Einstein landed a job as a patent examiner at the Swiss Patent Office in Bern.
The young man loved his new job and every day would be seen sitting at his desk for hours on end, while carefully reviewing patents and solving tough mathematical equations that came along. The passion was so strong to the point of an obsession and this would ultimately cost him his love life. But that was how he went from a struggling student, looked upon as a failure to reach the mountain top as a universally acclaimed genius who developed the theory of relativity and pioneered many groundbreaking efforts in quantum mechanics. It’s been over half a century since his death in April 1955, but Albert Einstein remains by far the most famous scientist the world has ever known.
Every once in a while, one gets lucky enough to be recognised for good stuff. Those are the little things of life that makes light a weary heart and lifts up the spirit to high heavens. That seldom happens on a first try though. It often comes at the end of strings of failures, disappointments, falls and even sometimes having to pick up the pieces. Then out of the blues, your shiny days get noticed and you are looked upon more favourably. But it gets a little odd when folks who are totally oblivious of your struggles begin to prefix your name with such hallowed words like brilliant, genius etc. You know they are well intentioned and very appreciative of your modest successes but for sure consider yourself unworthy of such appellations.
We all have this one thing that pushes the boundaries of our patience. You just can’t seem to get good at it as much as you would love to and so you develop a certain kind of phobia. Everyone has one. For me, it has to be solving multiple choice test questions in a wave of endless exams physicians are faced with every now and then. Though still able to work double hard and wing it through over the years, I have come to accept that as my kryptonite. Not that one hasn’t had his fair share of other life’s challenges, but a few sub-par performance along the way did bruise a fragile academic ego. Self confidence took a few hits in the process.
This piece was inspired in part by the struggles of a dear friend and colleague who had called recently to vent her frustration. She wasn’t sure what to do next but her mind was fully made about giving up the practice of medicine. Eva went in great details about how she had struggled with the decision for years and finally decided the time was right. For her, medicine was just not worth the trouble anymore and gave her no joy as a career. She took me through her fears and challenges many of which I share. Empathy was what I felt the whole time since yours truly has had his own share of conflicting thoughts to contend with, though not as radical. Not even close. Eva came from old money and so we are at the polar ends of the financial spectrum. In the end, we both settled with what she felt gives her joy.
Growing up, Eva’s passion found expression in the liberal arts but tell that to a Nigerian parent offering binary career options. A child was to chose between medicine or law. If one was especially lucky, you might be blessed with parents open minded enough to consider engineering as a third option. Aside from that, for them it was a total waste of time and resources pursuing anything else and hiding under the guise of following one’s passion.
John, another colleague of mine loves story telling. He always has, as far back as one could remember. By his account however, he had let that passion of his fizzle out in deference to that which puts food on the table. But not anymore. He had figured out a way to walk and chew gum at same time, something he discovered by pure serendipity but nonetheless has never been happier. His only regret was that he should have embraced that concept long before now.
Having practised medicine throughout his adult life, John was very thankful for the opportunity of a lifetime. The chance to make a difference in countless lives that cross path with him everyday was rewarding. He, however, confessed that as a physician, he had never woken up feeling like a super-hero or tap-danced his way to work (to borrow a phrase from Warren Buffet). What is true is that on the course of caring for the sick and struggling with self-doubt, this average Joe colleague of mind ressurrected his passion for the written words and was ready to shoot for the stars.
I have often imagined how life would have turned out for Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, had she continued with her initial career path in medicine. By now, she probably would be somewhere saving life, tucked away in a certain remote corner of the globe. It’s doubtful though, that she could have been anywhere close to the strastopheric success as an internationally acclaimed best-selling novelist. Thank goodness, the never ending industrial action embarked upon by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) in the 90’s forced her to relocate to America where she opted to pursue her dream instead of living someone else’s.
A wise man once described life as a collection of humble lessons and I have no iota of doubt in my mind that he was right. Every man has a passion for something and that’s why we all have the potential to be great. For when you are passionate about what you do, it automatically migrates from the realm of work to pure pleasure and the output is as huge as the reward.
Maybe life has to do with figuring out our strengths and following our passion, knowing fully well that we don’t suck at everything. I believe nobody said it better than Mr. Einstein himself: “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid”.
Follow your passion. It’s never too late.
•Dr. Agbo, a Public Affairs analyst is the coordinator of African Center for Transparency and Convener of Save Nigeria Project. Email: email@example.com